Travel & Culture

Eyes Open iconEyes Open

Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

June 23, 2016

Enter the Ninja

Matt Alt / Writer, Translator

Matt Alt first became aware of Japan as a child, through his fascination with robot toys. In college in the United States, he majored in Japanese and later made the move across the ocean. Watch for his "Plus One" reports on Japanology Plus.


Like many foreigners and Japanese alike, I've always been fascinated by the concept of the ninja. Unlike many aspects of Japanese culture, which can perplex foreigners, everyone knows the ninja, or at least they think they do. Thanks to decades of movies, comic books, and cartoons, the stereotype of a stealthy black-clad assassin capable of nearly supernatural feats is well engrained in the public's mind both in Japan and abroad. So too is the seductive idea that they truly existed in times of old, and might even continue their traditions in secret to this very day.

But when you think about it, this is a little odd. Japan certainly didn't invent the concepts of espionage, stealth, or assassins. There are plenty of examples of them throughout history around the world, such as the feared Assassins of medieval Persia, or stories from the ancient Chinese Art of War, which was written more than five thousand years ago. So how on Earth did a bunch of super-snoops from Japan come to symbolize generally sneaky behavior all over the world today?


The answer might surprise you. It certainly did me, when I first came to Japan. It turns out that it has less to do with real-life ninja and more to do with how skillful Japan is at creating popular characters. It turns out that the common image of the ninja originated in an unlikely place: the studio of the world-famous woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) -- the very same Hokusai who created the iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa. One of his sketchbooks contains what is believed to be the first-ever illustration of a black-clad ninja stealthily climbing a rope, based apparently upon the similarly attired stagehands of kabuki and bunraku plays. This is the world's first "modern" ninja.

Until Hokusai's era, ninja had been portrayed less like assassins and more like kabuki actors, clad in dazzling kimono, waving magic scrolls and weaving spells with arcane hand signs. They were essentially wizards. The first famous ninja of fiction, a character called Jiraiya, wasn't a martial artist. He defeated his enemies by transforming into a giant toad.

So what did real-life ninja look like? That might surprise you as well. The answer is that they looked pretty much like everyone else. The whole point was blending in, the better to eavesdrop or get close to a target. Dressing up in a head to toe black uniform, all but advertising that one was up to no good, was out of the question. So what did they wear? Even though it never uses the actual word "ninja," the Akira Kurosawa film Kagemusha gives a good hint. Dressed like farmers to blend in with the populace, spies ran from battle to battle keeping track on which side was winning so that they could report back to their masters.

That said, while they might not necessarily be historically accurate, modern day ninja characters in their black outfits are a lot of fun. And there are a lot of different places to enjoy them in Japan. The most elaborate is the Ninja Museum of Iga-ryu, located in the city of Ueno in Mie Prefecture. This is one of the birthplaces of ninjutsu (ninja arts), and today it is home to museums, shows, and classes for visitors. But even if your visit doesn't take you to Mie, there are many other places to enjoy ninja culture. Tokyo has a ninja restaurant. And there are various theme parks with ninja shows, such as the Nikko Edo Wonderland and Kyoto's Toei Studio Park.

Profile iconProfile

Matt Alt / Writer, Translator

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was first kindled by robot toys in his childhood. These days the whole world loves anime, sushi, and countless other aspects of Japanese culture, but things were quite different back then. After majoring in Japanese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Matt began working as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 2003, he and his wife, Hiroko Yoda (whom he met in the US and collaborated with on various translation projects), moved to Japan. Together they founded a company that produces the English versions of Japanese entertainment such as comics and video games. Their translations include the Fujiko Fujio manga classic Doraemon and the horror manga Dorohedoro, as well as video game titles in the Dragon Quest, Ninja Gaiden, and Gundam series.

QuestionHow long have you been in Japan?
I have been living in Japan for the past 13 years.
QuestionWhat was your original reason for coming to Japan?
As a kid, I loved Japanese pop culture, like manga, anime, and Godzilla movies. In fact, when I was five or so, I received a robot toy from Japan as a birthday present. It was very different from the toys I knew, and when I was told it came from Japan I really wanted to see the country where it came from. So you could say that my interest in Japan blossomed from Japanese robots. I still collect them today.
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
I love Nara's Great Buddha. Japan is renowned for miniaturization, but the daibutsu is absolutely enormous. It's even a little overwhelming.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
The train system! It's so efficient and easy to use. It's helped me get to so many different places. I don't even own a car here – I don't need one!
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
I have many favorite words, but I particularly enjoy wasei eigo, which are English words that are used in Japanese in a different way. Right now, I find myself using the phrase "plus-alpha" a lot. It's means something extra, something bonus. Both words are used in English of course, but not together in that way!


Japanology Plus

Japanology Plus

※Matt first appeared in Japanology as a guest in one of the "Japanophiles" episodes. Click here to enjoy the whole show.


Iga Ninja Forest

Journeys in Japan

Iga Ninja Forest

Archives iconArchives